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Australian state hesitates to require priests to break seal of confession

July 12, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Melbourne, Australia, Jul 12, 2018 / 10:37 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The Australian state of Victoria has said a recommendation by the royal commission that it pass a law requiring priests to break the confessional seal to report cases of child sex abuse requires further consideration.

Victoria attorney general Martin Pakula said July 11 that the government needs to further consider 24 of the 317 recommendations made to the state by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Pakula said the state government accepted 128 recommendations, and another 165 in principle, according to The Guardian.

He told ABC radio that the proposal to require the breaking of the seal of confession “needs a degree of national agreement.”

The Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, and Tasmania have already adopted laws making it illegal for priests to fail to report the confession of a child sex abuse crime.

In South Australia, priests who fail to report child sex abuse which they learned of while hearing a confession will face a AUD 10,000 fine ($7,400) beginning Oct. 1.

Like Victoria, New South Wales is subjecting that recommendation to further consideration, though it accepted 336 of the royal commission’s recommendations.

The New South Wales government said last month that “whether or how the offence will apply to members of the clergy where the information about an offence was gathered through religious confessions is a complex issue that has been referred to the Council of Attorney’s-General for national consideration.”

The Catholic Church in Australia has vehemently opposed the imposition of laws mandating reporting from the confessional. Many priests have said they would go to jail before violating the seal.

The Code of Canon Law states that “The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.” A priest who intentionally violates the seal incurs an automatic excommunication.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “every priest who hears confessions is bound under severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him,” due to the “delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons.”

Archbishop Christopher Prowse of Canberra-Goulburn has said that “Priests are bound by a sacred vow to maintain the seal of confession. Without that vow, who would be willing to unburden themselves of their sins?”

“The government threatens religious freedom by appointing itself an expert on religious practices and by attempting to change the sacrament of confession while delivering no improvement in the safety of children,” he said. “Sadly, breaking the seal of confession won’t prevent abuse and it won’t help our ongoing efforts to improve the safety of children in Catholic institutions.”

Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney has said that “priests will, we know, suffer punishment, even martyrdom, rather than break the seal of Confession,” which he called “a privileged encounter between penitent and God.”

Clerics are not the only critics of the new legislation. Andrew Wall, a member of the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly, said forcing priests to break the seal of confession oversteps an individual’s “freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of religious rights.”

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Australian priest rips confession proposal as government ‘intrusion’

August 24, 2017 CNA Daily News 3

Rome, Italy, Aug 25, 2017 / 12:03 am (CNA/EWTN News).- An Australian priest has called the Royal Commission’s recent proposal to enforce law requiring that clergy face criminal charges if they do not disclose details of sexual abuse revealed in the confessional a breach of religious tolerance.

Fr. Kelvin Lovegrove, Episcopal Vicar for Clergy in the Archdiocese of Sydney, told CNA Aug. 24 that he was “surprised” by the suggestion made by the Royal Commission that priests be forced “to break the law in regard to the Seal of Confession.”

“Australia is religiously tolerant country, and many people have emigrated to Australia from other countries so that they can freely practice their faith,” he said, calling the proposal “an intrusion by the Government into the realm of the spiritual relationship between priest and penitent, which up until has been sacrosanct.”

He said the proposal is out of step with expectations for others who maintain similar confidential relationships, noting that “other professionals such as psychologists, lawyers and journalists are not required to break confidences in regard to confidential information between them and their clients.”

Fr.  Lovegrove’s comments come less than two weeks after Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, established in 2013, on Aug. 14 released a sweeping 85 proposed changes to the country’s criminal justice system.

In addition to several other suggestions for abuse prevention, the commissiona recommended that the failure to report sexual abuse, even in religious confessions, be made “a criminal offense.”

“Clergy should not be able to refuse to report because the information was received during confession,” the report said, adding that if persons in institutions are aware of possible child abuse or suspect it, they ought to report it right away.

The commission cited cases brought before them in which perpetrators who had confessed the sexual abuse of children to a priest then “went on to re-offend and seek forgiveness.”

Therefore, while it recognized the importance of Confession to the Catholic Church, “the report recommends there be no exemption, excuse, protection or privilege from the offense granted to clergy for failing to report information disclosed in connection with a religious confession.”

According to the Church’s canon law, “the sacramental seal is inviolable. Therefore, it is absolutely wrong for a confessor in any way to betray the penitent, for any reason whatsoever, whether by word or in any other manner.”

A priest who directly violates the “Seal of Confession” incurs a “latae senentiae” excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See, which can only be lifted by the Pope himself.

Despite hearing the testimony of several bishops during their investigative phase, who pledged full cooperation with civil authorities, but drew a line when it came to the confessional, the commission insisted on the proposal to break the seal anyway.

In his comments, Fr. Lovegrove noted that “few perpetrators confess such a sin or crime as pedophilia.”

However, if the commission’s suggestion is adopted as law, priests who do hear such confessions are still “bound by the Seal of the Confessional,” he said, “and if the law were enacted, then yes they would face criminal prosecution.”

As it stands, the pastoral approach between a priest and penitent is for the priest to meet the penitent, whether perpetrator or victim, outside of the confessional, in order to “look at ways in which they might approach the civil authorities and resolve the dilemma in that way,” Fr. Lovegrove said.

Until now there has been no concrete advice from the bishops on how to respond to the proposal, he said, but explained that they are discussing the matter, “and will advise clergy as to the most appropriate course of action to take in regard to upholding the seal of confession.”

The priest stressed that in Australia, the Church and State have always maintained “a fairly amicable relationship” on topics related to religious freedom, and that as far as possible, both parties would seek to continue this relationship.

“Hopefully, there will be an agreeable outcome to this dilemma,” he said, noting that Church officials have already apologized publicly for sexual abuse within the Church, which continues to support the victims and their families.

“The Church has always sought to co-operate in any way with the civil authorities, especially regarding this situation,” he said. “It would be my hope that continuing dialogue between the Church and State may be able to resolve the proposed law in a way which respects the work of the Church in society.”

The Church, he said, “has been at the forefront of education, health care and social work in Australia,” and it would be “in the best interest of all to try and continue to work together for the betterment of all Australians.”

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Australian bishops oppose forcing priests to reveal details of confession

August 14, 2017 CNA Daily News 5

Vatican City, Aug 14, 2017 / 07:20 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The bishops of Australia have indicated that they will resist the Royal Commission’s proposal that priests be legally obligated to disclose details of sexual abuse revealed in the confessional, facing criminal charges if they don’t.

“Confession in the Catholic Church is a spiritual encounter with God through the priest,” Archbishop Denis J Hart of Melbourne said in an Aug. 14 statement.

President of the Australian Bishops Conference, Hart said confession “is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognized in the Law of Australia and many other countries.”

“It must remain so here in Australia,” he said, but stressed that “outside of this all offenses against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so.”

The statement came the same day Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, established in 2013, released a sweeping 85 proposed changes to the country’s criminal justice system.

In addition to suggestions tightening the law on sentencing standards in cases of historical sexual abuse, the use of evidence and grooming, the commission recommended that the failure to report sexual abuse, even in religious confessions, be made “a criminal offense.”

“Clergy should not be able to refuse to report because the information was received during confession,” the report said, adding that if persons in institutions are aware of possible child abuse or suspect it, they ought to report it right away.

The commission cited cases brought before them in which perpetrators who had confessed the sexual abuse of children to a priest then “went on to re-offend and seek forgiveness.”

Therefore, “the report recommends there be no exemption, excuse protection or privilege from the offense granted to clergy for failing to report information disclosed in connection with a religious confession.”

In an Aug. 14 statement from the Australian Church’s “Truth, Justice and Healing Council,” established in 2013 as a platform for the Church “to speak as one” on matters involving the Royal Commission, the council voiced opposition to the proposal involving Confession, but suggested that if implemented, the final decision on whether to comply would come down to each priest and his conscience.

In the statement, Francis Sullivan, CEO of the council, said that while the Catholic Church and the council itself “have consistently argued that these reporting provisions should not apply to the confessional, the Royal Commission has now made a different determination based on information and evidence it has heard over the past four years.”

“The whole concept of confession in the Catholic Church is built on repentance, forgiveness and penance,” Sullivan said, adding that “if a child sex-abuser is genuinely seeking forgiveness through the sacrament of confession they will need to be prepared to do what it takes to demonstrate their repentance.”

Part of this, he said, especially in cases of sexual abuse, “would normally require they turn themselves in to the police. In fact, the priest can insist that this is done before dispensing absolution.”

However, since the commission has now made a suggestion counter to the Church’s position, the final decision on whether or not it will become law is up to individual parliaments to form their own view and then make the relevant changes to the law.

“If ultimately there are new laws that oblige the disclosure of information heard in the Confessional, priests, like everybody else, will be expected to obey the law or suffer the consequences,” Sullivan said.

“If they do not, this will be a personal, conscience decision, on the part of the priest that will have to be dealt with by the authorities in accordance with the new law as best they can.”

Other changes proposed by the commission include changes to police responses, such as improvements to investigative techniques when interviewing; provisions for the improvement of “courtroom experience” for victims, making the process less traumatic; the removal of  “good character” as a factor in sentencing when that character carried out the abuse; changes requiring sentences to be placed in line with current sentencing standards rather than those at the time of the offense and the extension of grooming offenses to cover when the offender builds trust with a parent or guardian in order access the child.

Of the proposed changes, another that could affect the Catholic Church in real time is the request to change sentencing policies for historical cases of sexual abuse.

The suggestion asks that “all states and territories should introduce legislation so that sentences for child sexual abuse offenses are set in accordance with sentencing standards at the time of the sentencing, instead of at the time of offending.”

However, they said the sentence “must be limited to the maximum sentence available for the offense at the date when the offense was committed.”

“Many survivors of institutional child sexual abuse do not report the offense for years or even decades and applying historical sentencing standards can result in sentences that do not align with the criminality of the offense as currently understood,” they said.

Although it is unknown whether the change will in fact be made or how quickly it could be enforced, the move would directly affect cases such as that of Cardinal George Pell, who is currently facing charges on multiple counts of historical child sexual abuse.

The charges were announced by the police of Victoria, Australia at the end of June. As the Vatican’s Secretariat for the Economy since 2013 and a member of the Council of Cardinals advising Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell is the most senior Vatican official to ever be charged with abuse.

With the permission of Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell has taken leave from his responsibilities in the Vatican in order to return to Australia for the court proceedings.

He has maintained his innocence since rumors of the charges first came out last year. At a brief hearing in Melbourne July 26, the cardinal said he would be pleading “not guilty” to the charges. He is set to appear at a preliminary hearing Oct. 6.

Despite the fact that charges against the cardinal date as far back as the 1960s, the new proposals to historical cases of sexual abuse, if implemented right away, could go into effect in time to determine how Pell is sentenced should he be found guilty.

At the time the charges were announced, Victoria Deputy Commissioner Shane Patton emphasized that at that point, there had been “no change in any procedures whatsoever,” and stressed the importance of remembering that “none of the allegations that have been made against Cardinal Pell have, obviously, been tested in any court yet.”

“Cardinal Pell, like any other defendant, has a right to due process and so therefore it’s important that the process is allowed to run its natural course.”

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